Self-interested reform

Campaign finance: Congress' vote may close egregious loophole, but lasting change remains illusive.

July 02, 2000

ANYTIME real debate breaks out on the campaign finance front -- a rare occurrence -- politicians invoke the value of disclosure.

Reform isn't needed as long as voters know who gave what to whom, they intone. If they don't like a close tie between Senator X and Corporation Y, they can vote against that senator.

Legislators make this argument piously, knowing voters often don't see the link between policy decisions and money. The big checks and the policy votes are usually sufficiently separated to make the connection seem fuzzy.

It should not be surprising, then, to find Congress turning to disclosure only because some "stealth" contributions might threaten them.

Under current law, certain tax-exempt groups can raise money for Legislator X's opponent without disclosing the givers. Some members of Congress apparently worry that their enemies could gang up on them without having to reveal their involvement.

Last week, in what is hailed as a victory for reformers and their chief advocate, Sen. John McCain, the House and Senate voted to require groups raising more than $25,000 to file a tax return and name contributors who pony up $200 a year or more, and list expenditures of more than $500.

So Congress will send the president long-overdue campaign finance reform legislation -- the first since 1979.

And President Clinton says he will sign it.

But what will it mean in the end?

Rep. Michael Castle, the Delaware Republican, had it about right when he said, "We better be prepared to do something two years from now because they'll figure out a way around it."

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